Albert Ellis, Cognitive Restructuring and Short-Circuiting Stress

The first time I talked to Albert Ellis, he had called me on the phone. "Hello?" He yelled into the other end, in the raspiest voice imaginable. "Is this Jim Porter?"

"Yes," I said, sounding slightly annoyed, having no idea I was talking to the co-founder of Cognitive Therapy, a branch of psychology that has pretty much dominated the field from the mid-eighties until now.

"This is Albert Ellis. I just saw your film Short Circuiting Stress. It was the best film I've ever seen on cognitive restructuring and I'm sending you a letter to that effect in the mail tomorrow." (See the letter.)

When I was coming up with the idea for Short Circuiting Stress, I was just trying to think of something that hadn't been said before about managing stress. In a book on stress I had read by Robert Eliot, there was a page referring to Ellis's now famous equation A+B=C. The Activating Event + Belief equals the Consequence.

At the time, I didn't have a clue what that meant or really what cognitive restructuring was. But the more I learned, the more I became enamored with Ellis's method for diagramming any stressful situation. He had brilliantly boiled all stress down to three letters: A+B=C.

The equation indicates that a stressful event has three parts. First comes the Activating event or A: for example, an A could be any stressful event like a flat tire, a traffic jam, a lost file or an angry boss. Next comes your thoughts or Beliefs about that event or B: this is awful; it couldn't get any worse, it will never end, etc. And last comes your reaction, the Consequence of A+B or C: you feel frustrated, angry and stressed. It was an elegant equation and from my perspective, entirely true.

It also implied that, if you could change your thinking at B, or challenge your beliefs about the situation, you could change the outcome of any stressful event. And that was the essence of cognitive restructuring. Changing (or restructuring) the way you view or perceive (cognition) an event. I must admit I was blown away by the simplicity of it, so I decided I would make a film blending the concept with scenes from the Frank Capra movie, It's a Wonderful Life.

There's one particular scene in that movie that I had always wanted to use in a film about stress. It's the scene where, after seeing what the world would have been like if he had never lived at all, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) comes home and kisses the faulty ball at the bottom of his banister that keeps falling off in his hand as he goes up the stairs. He came close to throwing that ball through a window in a prior scene but now he's kissing it!

The only thing that changed between the two scenes was B: his thoughts and beliefs. His A (he was going to arrested for bank fraud) was exactly the same. But now that he realizes what an impact he had made on the world around him, he completely restructured his B and consequently what he felt at C. "Well hello, Mr. Bank Examiner," George gleefully announces at the end of this scene, "I'm going to jail!"

Ellis apparently liked what he had seen so much that he invited me to come to New York to meet with him. He must have been in his eighties at the time. He was still doing his famous Friday night therapy sessions at the Albert Ellis Institute (three blocks east of Central Park) where you could go, pay $5, and watch him "practice" on anyone who volunteered to get up from the audience. I remember exactly what he said that night as he introduced himself to the adoring group of Cognitive Restructuring groupies, of which, I was now a part: "On Friday night I like to help all the poor citizens of New York, one crazy person at a time." It was meant to draw a laugh and it got a big one.

Later that night, I was invited up to the third floor to talk with him in his private residence about making a film together. He was a lifelong diabetic so he had to eat a lot of small meals. As he munched on corn bread, he told me how much he liked the Loretta LaRoche video that we had done entitled, Laughing at Stress. Loretta had told me, when we made her film, that she was a big fan of Ellis's work too.

Dr. Ellis marched to the beat of a different drummer his whole life, and, at the time I met him, had all the earmarks of being the classic curmudgeon: A little grumpy, a little hard of hearing, and very old. He wasn't afraid to say anything that crossed his mind. And being polite was not as important as being honest. The next day I was to attend an all day workshop at the Institute. The people at the front desk warned me NOT to be late:Dr. Ellis didn't take kindly to late-comers. And sure enough when a young man dared to enter the room 15 minutes after the program started, Dr. Ellis barked out, "Find a seat. Sit down. You're in the way."

After that day, I read every book I could get a hold of by Dr. Ellis (there are over 60) and really tried to incorporate the concept of cognitive restructuring into my life and into all our products. You'll see it in our 32 page workbook, The Thinking Person's Guide to Managing Stress, the trifold brochure: Practical Stress Management, the training kit The ABCs of Cognitive Restructuring and The Stress Management Journal. Even the videos, Balancing the Stress in Your Life, Laughing At Stress (With Loretta LaRoche) and Managing Stress have sections that are thoroughly influenced by the work of Albert Ellis.

Ellis died several years ago at the age of 95. We never did get around to making that film together which I will always regret. But I recently heard an amazing story from Jon Kabat Zinn about Ellis that I suspect very few people know. A year or so before he died, Ellis was finishing a book about Buddhism and sent a pre-publication copy to Kabat-Zinn for review and comment. Kabat-Zinn replied that he thought the book wasn't up to the other work Ellis had done over the years and advised him not to publish it. When Ellis died, Ellis's former life-partner called Jon and asked him if he wanted to speak at his funeral. "Why me?" Kabat Zinn asked her, I didn't even know the guy."

"You're the only person he ever listened to. You told him not to publish that book on Buddhism and he never did."

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